Follow the leader Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Winning growth initiatives depends heavily on employee buy-in. Leaders often start strong out of the blocks by communicating the results they desire or even the process they want used. But when an initiative is handed off to the team, things get a bit more complicated.

So how do the best leaders gain buy-in from their followers?

“It’s really about creating a belief that everyone has an opportunity to fit in and contribute,” says Sheb True, Ph.D., director of Graduate Business Programs, Coles College of Business. “In the short term, you can have unhappy followers, but in the long term, you need happy followers, and successful leaders understand where that happiness comes from.”

Smart Business spoke with True about how the best leaders resist the urge to overcontrol behavior, work hard to surface employee concerns, and promote a framework of dialogue and collaboration.

What symptoms within an organization hint at poor leadership?

A sure sign of leadership deficiencies is when there’s no sense or understanding of the values of your organization. Everyone needs to understand the common values in terms of what you’re trying to accomplish, why you’re trying to accomplish something or even how it will be tackled. I think another symptom is when leaders focus too much on the controlling of behaviors, or micromanagement, rather than forging a synergistic orientation where employees at all levels perceive they can and they do contribute to growth — whether it’s from new ideas, new initiatives or continuous improvement. Low morale is a symptom tied to these leadership deficiencies.

What builds good morale?

If there’s low morale, you can point to a lot of bad behaviors within the organization, but the buck stops at the leadership level. It’s not to say that everyone should be happy all of the time or you have to cater to every need. High morale occurs when your stakeholders understand where they fit in and believe what they’re doing is important. It’s different for each function, level and department, but each follower still needs to understand where he or she fits in. You’ve got to know what they need so they want to contribute in the long run.

How can leaders transition to new growth models and get others to buy in?

You can grow in terms of sales, you can grow in terms of quality, and you have to give your people the opportunity to grow, as well. Growth naturally allows more opportunities to contribute, and that’s where buy-in comes into play. You should communicate the value of growth and how it represents opportunities for everyone — from compensation, growth of responsibility and the intrinsic value of knowing that everyone has the potential to contribute. If you can do that, employees will be asking, ‘How can I bring more to this organization and contribute to our goals and values?’

Are the best leaders rigid or sensitive to how their actions impact others?

The quote, ‘With great power comes great responsibility,’ tells the tale. You are responsible to those who follow you. Leadership is about making decisions, about making choices and putting those choices into action. You have to be sensitive to how your actions are going to impact others, including the environment, society, customers or your employees. Initially, you do need to be rigid to the organizational values, but that implies you were very careful in how you determined and established the values of the organization. At the same time, you must be flexible in terms of how the organization can accomplish something because others may have different approaches to achieve the same goals. And that’s where you have to be open to new ideas.

How can leaders surface and mitigate concerns?

Leadership is about communicating and fostering communication throughout the organization. You need discourse and dialogue — and not just with upper management. It allows you to surface concerns and creates an environment of collaboration to solve them, as long as the shared goal is to solve them and not just talk without taking action. You have to trust the organization’s ability and desire to solve the issues.

What are tips to improve leadership skills?

The big ones are around fairness and communication because improvement in these areas will build trust. Fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal, but you should work to improve a sense of fairness in the organization. Communication skills can always be improved. Look at your communication model — you should see clear channels of communication from the leaders to the followers, followers to leaders and productive dialogue between your followers. Promoting fairness and communication will create that trust, improve your credibility, and lead to follower buy-in and more successful growth initiatives. <<

SHEB TRUE, Ph.D., is director of Graduate Business Programs, Coles College of Business, Kennesaw State University. Reach him at (770) 423-6076 or